Creative arts therapy can be a powerful way for teens to process emotions and work through past experiences. Particularly for teens who don’t feel comfortable expressing themselves verbally or for those who hide behind their words, expressing themselves through art, music, movement, or song can be a breakthrough moment.
Creative arts therapies—including music and visual art interventions—are proven to be effective for teens. They go beyond words. Furthermore, they go beyond the rational mind, tapping into our most authentic self. According to researcher Shirley Riley, “Adolescents, in particular, are attracted to making symbols and graphic depictions. Therefore, they are more attracted to using art as language than to verbal questioning.”
Creative arts therapy might be crafting a collage that illustrates how you think the world sees you. And then a second collage showing how you see yourself. Then, you work with a therapist to interpret what you’ve made. Or it could be keeping the beat in a group of musicians. Therefore, as a way to wordlessly connect and collaborate.
Arts Therapy Goes Beyond Words
Many teens in recovery are wise to what they’re “supposed” to say in therapy. “Teens know the buzzwords, and the talk therapy process can be impacted by that,” says Kristin Wilson, MA, LPC, Chief Experience Officer at Newport Academy. Kristin holds a master’s in creative arts therapies. “The creative process doesn’t allow for that kind of manipulation to happen.”
Creative arts therapies get teens out of their heads and into their bodies.
“Teens who abuse substances are trying to escape feelings. That disconnects you from your body,” Kristin says. “Expressing who they are, without words, can lead to authentic connection with self. Furthermore, this allows them to make authentic connections with others.”
Music Creates Connection
Tim Ringgold, MT-BC, a music therapist at Newport Academy, sees that connection happening. He watches teens relax into the music. “We have energy and emotion in our bodies that we have to process. As a result, if we don’t, it can cause a negative impact,” he says. “When you hit a drum, you can release that emotion.”
In fact, studies on the impact of drumming on addiction show powerful benefits. Drumming is proven to enhance recovery in a whole range of ways. Therefore, these include inducing relaxation, releasing emotional trauma, easing isolation, and creating a sense of connectedness with self and others. Researcher Michael Winkelman says “drumming provides a secular approach to accessing a higher power and applying spiritual perspectives.” That applies to other forms of music therapy as well, Tim says.
A Healthy Reward
The creative experience produces a natural high. Simply viewing art and listening to music stimulate the brain to release dopamine, the “pleasure chemical”. This is the same chemical that is triggered when we fall in love. In one study, Professor Semir Zeki, a neurobiologist at the University College London, scanned the brains of volunteers as they looked at 28 classical works of art. He saw increased activity in the reward centers of the brain.
Actively making art or music has a similar effect. In addition, it induces a state of flow, a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. This flow describes the experience of being completely absorbed in an activity. “It means participating in a reality that is different from that of the everyday life,” as Csikszentmihalyi described it in a 2004 TED Talk. He believed that creativity produces flow and that experiences of flow are the key to sustainable happiness.
For teens in recovery, “we need them to start to ratchet down expectations of reward. Therefore, they need to do activities that reward them for being in the present moment,” says Tim.
Watch Sara, Alumni of Newport Academy, as she uses the art of photography to help her see the beauty in everyday life:
Consequently, creative arts therapy prepares teens to be creative in other areas of life. “Creativity is one of the muscles we use in recovery,” says Tim, who has been in recovery himself for 15 years. Therefore, it comes into play as teens learn new ways of relating to their past and present. In addition, they learn new approaches to dealing with pain, trauma, and difficult relationships.
“It’s not about talent,” Tim says. “It’s about living life as an artistic medium.”
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